It's a decision most people would rather not make.
But because dozens of grieving family members have allowed their deceased loved ones' corneas to be donated, many Brainerd lakes area residents have been blessed with the gift of returned sight.
During the past 2 1/2 years, Dr. David Sabir, an eye surgeon at St. Joseph's Medical Center, has performed almost 30 corneal transplants, a delicate eye surgery that previously wasn't available in Brainerd. Donor corneas are transported by air into Brainerd from the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
The surgery involves removing the impaired cornea, which is the clear, contact-lens-shaped surface at the front of the eye, and replacing it with a similarly shaped piece from a healthy donor cornea. The fairly painless procedure takes more than an hour and transplant recipients are able to go home later that day. The new corneas are stitched in using 16 tiny stitches that are removed three to four months later. Corneal transplant patients, who range in age from only a few days old to 103 years, gradually regain their sight as the eye heals.
Debra Hopper, Pequot Lakes, a veterinary assistant at the Crosslake Veterinary Hospital, worked with an English sheep dog named Molly at the clinic Wednesday. On Jan. 21, Hopper, 43, underwent a corneal transplant on her right eye at St. Joseph's Medical Center. (Dispatch Photo by Jodie Tweed)
Debra Hopper, Pequot Lakes, underwent a corneal transplant on her right eye Jan. 21, two days before her 43rd birthday.
"I gave myself a cornea for my birthday," said Hopper with a laugh.
A series of problems in her right eye and a recent drastic decrease in vision prompted the immediate corneal transplant. Hopper was scalded on three-fourths of her body when she was 13 months old after accidentally pulling hot milk from a stove top. She believes her right eye was likely initially damaged at that time.
When she was 19, she was diagnosed with glaucoma in her right eye and three other surgeries were performed. The many surgeries may have also damaged her eye, she said. In March 1999, her vision in her right eye was 20/25. By January, she couldn't distinguish colors and could only see fingers waved directly in front of her right eye.
Sabir told her she could either accept the blindness in her eye or have a corneal transplant.
"At that point I didn't have anything to lose," said Hopper.
The surgery went well. Hopper's eyesight has improved to 20/70 and is expected to improve more within the next few months. She takes anti-rejection medications, or four eye drops each day, to make sure her body doesn't reject the new cornea.
Hopper said she's thankful for the family who decided to donate the cornea that has allowed her to once again have full vision.
"I am extremely grateful," said Hopper. "I would say that it has definitely improved my life. You learn to appreciate things more. You take things for granted until you don't have them anymore, especially your health. I've encouraged more people to become donors."
"Families can find an immense amount of comfort in knowing that something good has come of a death of a loved one," said Diane Harayda of the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank. She said more than 50 families in the Brainerd lakes area have donated corneas to the eye bank in the past 10 years.
But there have been several times when corneas haven't been available when Sabir and other Minnesota doctors have needed them. At any given time, 30-50 people in the state and North Dakota are waiting for a corneal transplant. That is why Harayda is hoping more people will talk to their families about their desire to become organ donors.
Ultimately, it's a decision your family will make, regardless of whether you have signed a donor card.
For more information about organ donation, call the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank at 1-888-5-DONATE or check out the Web site, www.mnlionseyebank.org.
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